Chef Toni Clifton's delectable fried chicken and red velvet waffles...

Chef Toni Clifton's delectable fried chicken and red velvet waffles (Nov. 16, 2012) Credit: Alessandro Vecchi

Can't argue with the restaurant's name; chef and co-owner Toni Clifton is undeniably attractive. But Clifton has more going for her than appearance.

This is a woman who cooks with passion, heart and skill. Her somewhat nontraditional version of soul food avoids pork products and large quantities of fat and sugar, yet its comfort factor runs high.

Pretty Toni's Cafe is small and tastefully furnished, with chocolate brown walls and accents of red and yellow. In the background, soul music plays. One night, a jazz saxophonist regales diners. Service is unfailingly accommodating and -- like the restaurant's moist, slightly sweet cornbread -- warm.

Kicking off one dinner is a generous appetizer of skewered BBQ grilled shrimp -- smoky, lightly glazed, irresistible. Successful, too, are adroitly spiced jerk chicken wings, served up with a lively mango and pineapple salsa. Cajun salmon cakes have a subtle electric undercurrent and yet taste as though they came from Grandma's kitchen. How light the strips of fried catfish are, vanishing off the plate in a matter of moments.

Fried catfish reappears in the center of a fine po'boy sandwich on a crusty French roll. Clifton takes catfish to an even higher level by pan-blackening it in a mixture of spices both fiery and sweet. Weekends, fried whiting is a specialty. Again, one has to marvel at the lightness of its batter.

But it's Clifton's delectable fried chicken and crisp-tender waffles that really rule. Red velvet waffles, an alternative accompaniment, are sweeter, yet despite their drizzle of cream cheese frosting, not cloying. You can also get fried chicken smothered with old-fashioned-good gravy and onions. BBQ jerk chicken has its smoky-spicy appeal.

Side dish standouts include beautifully pan-glazed sweet plantains and an eggy soufflé-like version of mac and cheese, as well as toasty sweet potato fries.

Hard to fathom why Clifton would microwave a peach cobbler, scorching it and making its crust soggy. But banana pudding with vanilla wafers is light, opulent, sending you out into the night on a cloud.

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